Riding Surprises in the Loire Valley

An adventure is not an adventure unless there are surprises. Right? Okay, my wife countered, but surprises don’t have to be near death experiences. Surprises can be fun discoveries. I had initially balked when she suggested arranging an “easy to moderate” five-day bike ride for our family of three in the green and rolling hills of the Loire Valley through Discover France Adventures. Daiga and our ten year old son, Dain, and I bicycle-commute most days (even in winter) at home in Seattle, a hilly city.  She wanted to celebrate a milestone birthday with a bicycling adventure.  She has a surplus of stressful surprises at work. I got that. And I certainly wasn’t against adding the luxury of sleeping in hotels and having our gear picked up and driven ahead. Still, an orchestrated “adventure,” I worried, might eliminate the element of surprise altogether. No surprise, no adventure.

Our first day of biking offers our first test.


A rue in Amboise, the royal chateau on the left

The loop ride begins in Amboise, home to Leonardo Da Vinci in the last few years of his life (and home to a great theme park with his inventions).  We pedal at an easy clip through forests and sunflower fields and villages.  With their vine-covered, crumbling stone walls and slate-shingled roofs, flower boxes and tall wooden louvered shutters and iron grillwork, the farmhouses are so charming we constantly want to stop pedaling and snap photos with Daiga’s I-phone. But, we promised Dain a canoe ride.  We press on.

From Amboise to the Cher River, 13.5 kilometers by our route, we follow signs to “Canoe Company” and paddle two kilometers east through deep green chilly water. Gliding under the arches of Chateau Chenonceau, listening to the gleeful shrieks of middle-school girls on a field trip, Daiga and I decide that, considering we still have nearly 40 km to ride, we’ll just skip the crowded chateau. Nothing doing, says Dain. We’re going in.

The popular chateau was remodeled in renaissance fashion by Diane de Poutiers, King Henri II’s favorite mistress.  Upon the king’s death, his Italian widow, Catherine de Medici, evicted the mistress then spent fountains of royal money to remodel her rival’s fashion out of her home. Dain is surprised by the enormous size of the bedroom the lucky king had all to himself. Daiga and I are surprised by the story of the wing that crosses the river, known as the “gallery.” The Cher demarcated the WWII divide between Nazi occupied France north of the river, and the French Vichy Government zone south of the river. The chateau straddled the two worlds. Its entrance was in the occupied zone and guarded by enemy artillery.  The gallery was in the Vichy zone. Political refugees were smuggled to safety through the gallery and over the river. This discovery is especially meaningful to Daiga.  Both of her Latvian parents made escapes in similarly dramatic fashion.

Late in the afternoon, we hit trouble. Emerging from the sun-dappled woods of Foret Domaniale on a tiny road, Daiga, our route-finder, calls out, “Something’s not right.” Our handbook indicates we should veer west. The road continues north. We straddle our bicycles and figuratively scratch our helmets. Surrounded by corn and hay fields, the lone farmhouse off in the distance, the down side of so much serenity becomes all too apparent.  There is no one around from whom to ask directions.

Chateau Chenonceau

View of Chateau Chenonceau looking west; the “gallery” is the wing crossing the river.

“No, we’re not lost,” Daiga tells our worried son.  “We just don’t know where we are.”

It’s hot.  Our water bottles are verging on empty.  Our store of bribery chocolate is melting in our paniers.  We estimate we have at least 20 km of pedaling left to reach our hotel in Amboise and that’s if we stay on route.

Dain has been a trooper so far, singing Beatles songs, cracking jokes. But his steed is heavy. It’s a mountain bike with knobby tires and disc brakes and shocks. He has the shortest legs.  He is riding the hardest.  For his sake we worry about adding mileage.

Distrusting my map skills – men say they know what they’re doing even when they don’t – Daiga consults the GPS device, which displays routes for each day of our adventure. The device locates us on earth.  We missed a turn.

“We have to backtrack,” I explain to Dain.  He’s already convinced that his parents conspired to be lost so that we could extend what was only meant to be a 50 km (31 mile) ride.  “You need a rest? Want some more baguette and melted chocolate?”

“I’m okay,” says Dain. “Dad, just tell me a story of one time when you were lost.”

Nine kilometers later, finally back on route, we know Dain is tired because he starts asking, “Mom, is it bon soir [good evening] time yet?”

Back in Amboise in our hotel room at the end of what turns into a 59 km ride, hardship is soon forgotten.  Like a king surveying his kingdom, Dain announces, “I’m glad we’re here. I mean, I like riding in Seattle, no offense, but… je suis de soie.” He doesn’t realize he has said, “I am of silk.” He probably meant to say C’est la vie. We don’t correct him. It becomes our mantra: je suis de soie.

Dain crawls out the window, pulls a novel and a pillow down with him onto a hip-roof and reads with the aid of streetlamps.  Daiga says, while he can’t hear us, “This is just the amount of adventure I was hoping for.”  Unplugged from electronics!  Relaxed from exertion and fresh air.  Surrounded by beauty marinated in history. Okay, so we got lost. Je suis de soie.  I am on a super light carbon-fiber bike. I tell her I want more, something. More miles, faster pace, more sweat, more surprise, I don’t know. What if I just ride off…

“No”, she says, adding a reminder I shouldn’t need.  “We are a family. We do this adventure together.”




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